My View from the Ramparts: Farming in the age of COVID-19

The past couple of months has been a strange time here at Innisfree, as I know it has been for everyone during this time of social isolation and pandemic outbreak.

What’s been strangest for us is how relatively little our day-to-day lives have changed in the face of these challenges even as we see the world struggling around us. That’s not to say we don’t face challenges, but years ago, my wife and I decided to follow the path of making our farm a smallhold homestead and making that decision has changed our relationship with the greater world.

I am a hermit by nature, so I have been long content not to go out much, and my full-time jobs have been here on the farm since 2008. Since last fall, my wife has been employed full-time by the farm as well, and we have had a long-standing dedication to readiness owing to our relatively rural location and personal experience.

So, when the social distancing came, what ended was the incidental trips we tended to make because we could. Otherwise, the farm carries on as normal. I know one of the challenges so many people face right now is being out of work, but since our money comes in clumps at predictable times of the year, we’re no better or worse off than we might otherwise be.

I’m not saying any of this to boast but rather to observe that we’re realizing that our farm-life choices have proved to be even more robust than we imagined them to be when we made them. It’s not an easy life, and it has required some difficult choices and sacrifices to make happen, but we’re realizing it now more than ever they were actions worth taking.

If anything, I want to put this out there for others to consider. This is a viable life choice if you’re willing to do what it takes to make it happen.

DLH

Read more at my My View from the Ramparts site...

My View from the Ramparts: Heading in to 2020

The past few years have been tumultuous ones for me here at Innisfree for a variety of reasons. I got really sick and am just now at the point where I am recovering. In the meantime, we ended our Angus cattle operation, invested in wool sheep and meat goats, got our crop ground certified organic, and took on a new crop farmer.

All of that said, 2020 looks to be the first year in quite a while where things have reached something of a steady state. Most of our big input projects are done, and now we can focus on making the things we’re doing better. Our hope is that effort will be less expensive and less time and labor intensive than the past few years.

Not to worry, though, because I’m sure I will dream up some new, wild scheme. Stay tuned. More will come.

DLH

Read more at my My View from the Ramparts site...

Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater: Please excuse the mess

Really, it’s more of a metaphorical mess as we go about the business of steering the beast that is Innisfree on the Stillwater in a new direction.

What does that direction look like? Well, we’re now share-cropping organic row crops, raising wool and meat sheep instead of cattle, and transitioning to perennial permiculture over annual monoculture.

The goal is to make our farm a model for what the future of sustainable farming can look like. Until then, it might seem like a mess.

DLH

Read more at my Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater site...

Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater: Taming a tangled wilderness

We’re unusually free with sharing our successes and failures here at Innisfree on the Stillwater, a fact that is intentional and purposeful rather than naive and dramatic. You see, our desire, along with giving people access to quality, sustainably grown food is also to help educate the vast majority of people who don’t understand what it takes to grow their food exactly what it takes to grow their food.

In addition to some thinking we’re arrogant for having such a goal, one of the classic responses we get, especially to failures, is that we don’t know what we’re doing. The irony, to a point, is that these critics are right, but for entirely the wrong reasons.

As it turns out, we don’t know what we’re doing because the knowledge of what we’re trying to do, in many cases, has been almost entirely lost, sometimes intentionally. Over the past several decades, there has been a radical revolution in agriculture almost unheard of since the invention of agriculture itself, and often not always for the better. This revolution has happened so quickly that the knowledge got lost before it got written down.

The result has been tragic, from loss of crop diversity so severe that entire annual crops are now entirely clones to animals so closely bred for specific genetics that they die from eating food they’re supposed to be able to eat, along with a population now so far removed from the realities of what it actually takes to feed them that this all seems normal to them.

We don’t know what we’re doing because we’re on the frontier trying to create a bulwark against the threats these kinds of changes represent. We understand we’re not going to overturn or replace those realities, but we also know some level of that knowledge must be salvaged or rediscovered or the potential for disaster is real and imminent.

So yes, we admit our ignorance, not as a condemnation of ourselves, but as a bellwether of the risks we all face. We do this because we desperately want to learn before it’s too late and for others to understand the risks we all face.

Perhaps that makes us arrogant, but the fact is that explorers and discoverers have always had to be to succeed at what they’re trying to do. We accept that aspersion and the challenge it represents because the task must be done.

DLH

Read more at my Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater site...

Writing: Pondering NaNoWriMo 2015 and the act of writing at all

I know it’s a while until November, but experience says it’s never really too early for one to get ready for National Novel Writing Month. For those who might have missed it, NaNoWriMo is an event put on by the Office of Letters and Light that encourages people to write 50,000 words in 30 days in an effort to encourage people to write. It’s a lot more difficult than it might sound, it turns out.

I’ve attempted NaNoWriMo six times starting in 2007 and achieved the 50k word goal in 2010. In fact, achieving that goal in 2010 reinforced for me something I’ve come to realize and have tried to avoid since I started taking writing classes in 2006: I’m not a novelist.

Instead, what I have discovered is that I am a short storiest. A really short storiest. In fact, I’ve found my comfort zone lies at around 2500 words, and writing 10k works feels like trying to move the earth. Why does that matter? Because if one wants to succeed as a writer, the best way to do so is to write to one’s strengths.

Of course, success in writing is relative. Another thing I’ve realized along the way is that my long-time dream of being a successful, published writer is probably just that: a dream. Some might find that sad, but what I’ve realized along the way is that I write because I have to get this stuff out of my head. If someone else likes it, I’m glad, but I like not having these ideas slowly drive me insane even more.

So, what does that mean for NaNoWriMo 2015? Basically, cheating. My plan is to write a thematic anthology of stories, more or less 30 stories in 30 days all centered around a single topic. For me, it’s the best of both worlds: I try to write 50k words in 30 days, but I do it by writing 2700ish word short stories everyday for 30 days.

I’m looking forward to the challenge. And to the relief. More will follow…

DLH

Read more at my Writing site...

Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater: Swinging for the fences

The one part of our farming adventure at Innisfree on the Stillwater that has dogged us since the beginning is the fact that we have continued to lease our 100 acres of tillage ground, mostly for the sake of the cash rent. Of course, that lease meant a compromise in the form the use of herbicides and pesticides on that ground every year, but the money was hard to turn down.

Taking back over that ground has always been a part of our plan, and with the upcoming end of the current lease, it has been a regular topic of conversation for us.

This year, as the result of the advent of glyphosate-resistant weeds, the ante got upped with the application of 2,4-D to the entire 100 acres, which fact proved to be a bridge too far for my wife and me. As a result, we’ve decided not to renew the lease and to start working that ground ourselves.

This is a significant step for us, mostly in that it involves a loss of about a third of the farm’s cash income over at least the next couple of years as we transition to new endeavors. Irrespective of the cost, we plan to follow through on this because it is the right thing to do.

Sure, maybe we’re radical and idealistic, but we actually want to leave our little part of planet earth better than we found it for future generations. And so, we will take that ground back over and farm it the way we believe is right.

For us, that means planting about 40 acres of it in grass hay and about another 30 acres of it in fast-growing hardwood trees we plan to sustainably lumber for a variety of farm uses, especially for fence posts for our animal operations. The remainder will function as both a prairie area and for small food plots.

This transition is going to be risky and stressful, but neither of us have any doubt it is the right thing to do. We firmly believe Innisfree represents the future of agriculture, and that fact alone makes what we have decided worth it.

Here’s to hoping and to swinging for the fences.

DLH

[UPDATE: Edited for content]

Read more at my Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater site...

Worldview: Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater: And so much more…

I’ve discovered over the past five years that people have huge preconceptions about what being a farmer means. I know, coming in, I had all sorts of them, and I know I am surrounded by fellow farmers who have deeply held ideas about their profession. One of my first posts on this site dealt with one of them, and dredged up the almost predictable responses (I’m not linking to it simply because I want to talk about something else).

One of the preconceptions I had coming in was the nature of what farm work meant in the first place. Many people, including my onetime self, have the idea that farming is as simple as growing and harvesting a crop or raising and selling an animal. I’m here to tell you firsthand that, whatever kind of farming one does, that could not be further from the truth.

Even at its most monoculture, farming is a polyculture because it cannot be anything else. Farming demands knowledge of everything from agriculture to zoology and demands the farmer be everything from an accountant to a zoo keeper.

It’s not an accident, then, that history notes the rise of farming intertwined with the rise of what we think of as civilization. Domesticating, planting, raising, harvesting, and slaughtering plants and animals for food in more effective and efficient ways is the necessary mother that gave rise to everything we take for granted today, either by inventing the things we have or by enabling the things we have to be invented.

And so, in the end, I can think of few other undertakings as intensive and broad as that of the farmer. Granted, the hurdles are tall and the valleys are deep, but if anyone wants to fully challenge himself in the pursuit of life, the vocation of farmer is a place to do it.

DLH

Read more at my Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater weblog...

Read more at my Worldview site...

Worldview: Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater: Fanaticism

There’s something about the sustainable food movement in all its various incarnations that brings out the fanatic in people, both pro and con. I admit that I am just as bad as anyone.

Yet, there is an underlying problem with that fanaticism that undermines the whole attempt to improve the way we feed ourselves, and it finds its voice in purity tests voiced by some that demand things that are unrealistic or downright impossible.

Among the worst of these tests are calls for laws that threaten the livelihoods of the very kinds of people trying to make change happen. For example, there are those who want to pass laws that would require sustainable farmers and vegetable producers to get licensed before they could produce.

I understand the motives that drive such calls because I experience them first hand. I also know they only serve to threaten the very undertaking we’re all supposed to be working together to achieve by making it harder to do what we are doing.

Perhaps, instead of calling for laws, boycotts, and bans, if we see a problem, we should be working extra hard to solve it and let the chips fall where they may. All that effort spent trashing others could be used in a far more productive way, and in the end, that properly applied effort might just produce something better than what we already have.

DLH

Read more at my Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater weblog...

Read more at my Worldview site...

Worldview: Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater: Some thoughts on the future of agriculture

Yesterday on Facebook, I posted a link to an article on Grist about urban farming. The point of the article was that urban farming is not a panacea for our food production ills, and I made the argument that there is no one solution to those ills.

Something I did not touch on in those thoughts is something that too few people trying to reform agriculture in the 21st century talk about: how the consumer needs to change habits as part of a broader effort to improve the food we grow while reducing its impact.

Far too many reform efforts focus on the supply side–that is, on the farmer–while ignoring the consumer. People tend to ignore things like rampant food waste–as much as 60 percent of all food produced ends up in landfills–or over-consumption–the reason so many people are fat. They tend to ignore the massive impact out-of-season eating has on the environment and the economic impact massive box groceries have on local communities.

What I find interesting is that the concept of urban gardens addresses these sorts of problems too. It’s a psychological trick, but people tend to waste less food if they’ve produced it themselves, food harvested from gardens is of higher quality and nutrition, and gardening of any kind is fantastic exercise. Urban gardens can help reduce the transportation network required to keep box stores stocked with out-of-season foods and by definition keep food buying dollars local.

It is an old adage that how we spend is more powerful than how we vote. We affect the future of agriculture with our spending more than any other thing. As consumers, investing in urban gardens speaks volumes promises a brighter future.

DLH

Read more at my Thoughts from Innisfree on the Stillwater weblog...

Read more at my Worldview site...